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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Society Held Hostage

Who is to blame for Andrei Babitsky's disappearance?

It is now clear that the rather mystical exchange of one Russian citizen for two Russian citizens is a sleight of hand meant to conceal an obviously unlawful action - or, more likely, a heinous crime.

As early as Jan. 30, Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky stated that Yury Biryukov - head of the Prosecutor General's Office's Central Department of the North Caucasus - had been charged with finding the Radio Liberty correspondent and dictating the measures to be taken in his case. Just a few days later, however, unidentified "military circles" were showing television cameras what they said was a Jan. 31 statement signed by the journalist and consenting to an overtly unlawful "exchange" procedure.

Was the Prosecutor General's Office a key player in orchestrating this punishment? No. On Feb. 1, Biryukov, who knew nothing about the situation, requested Babitsky's written agreement not to leave Moscow - and then left him in Chechnya. Babitsky was not deported to Moscow, nor was he released from detention. The prosecutor's action, therefore, could not be seen as a logical fulfillment of his appointed task. But to the people detaining Babitsky, it could be seen as permission to do with the journalist as they pleased. We don't know yet what kind of treatment they have chosen, but we fear the worst.

Such misgivings are prompted as much by obvious facts as they are by NTV's silence over the weekend. The network, which until then had been highlighting the Babitsky story in virtually every news block, was suddenly keeping mum - as though it had cut itself short in the middle of a phrase. The silence was finally broken on "Itogi" on Sunday night, but the report didn't add much in the way of new information: Host Yevgeny Kiselyov sounded like he was holding something back and in general seemed bewildered by the entire situation. I don't believe that the most professional news team on TV was simply uninformed. Perhaps they were actually too well informed - but hesitant to tell the truth in the face of the authorities' official position.

Regardless of the prosecutor's charges or the various reproaches made against Babitsky's "Chechen bias," it cannot be said the Radio Liberty correspondent was not fulfilling his role as a journalist. As Igor Klyamkin, director of the Institute of Sociological Analysis, recently said, "Society is unaware of the price it is paying for this war." There has long been no trust for the official press centers, which have wrapped themselves in lies regarding both Chechen wars. So it was thanks to Babitsky that we were even able to imagine this price. If he violated the law, let the court have its say. But for now, only one thing is clear: Babitsky has disappeared. We last saw him on video, a tape shot by an FSB camera. What did we see? His very posture showed despair; he didn't look like someone acting on his own free will. Some people, armed and in uniform, pass him to a shadow in a mask whom we only glimpse in passing and who takes Babitsky rather professionally by the shoulder. The cameraman's attention atthat moment is supposed to be absorbed by this very shadow! What is the reason for concealing these shots from our vision? Obviously, watching further would have made it clear to us that Babitsky was being handed over to other people against his will - provided there were in fact "other people."

No information was obtained to confirm the actual existence of the Chechen commanders who had allegedly offered Russian soldiers in exchange for Babitsky. There has been no explanation why Babitsky has yet to call his wife or Radio Liberty. By all accounts, he is a devoted journalist. It's impossible to believe that he would fail to communicate if given the chance. Is it his Chechen captors who are forcing his silence? But after being told repeatedly about their talent for "information wars," there is no reason for us to take them for idiots. So who is it that Babitsky was handed over to? We don't even know for sure who arranged the alleged exchange. Everyone from the Defense Ministry to the Federal Security Service, or FSB, has denied knowing anything. Truthfully, it is Vladimir Putin, as acting guarantor of Russians' constitutional rights, who can be considered responsible for the journalist's fate since Feb. 4, when he claimed that he knew everything about this story and that Babitsky had in fact been passed to the Chechens. Should we take it to mean that it was all done with his consent?

If the man calling for a "dictatorship of law" was from the start aware of this operation - and we can smell its KGB methods from miles away - then there's no doubt what life under this guarantor of rights will be like. But it is also possible that Putin himself knows only what military counterintelligence and the FSB think it necessary to tell him, and that the military and secret service have replaced the rule of law and government in the warring region. If Babitsky is not found among the living, it will mean that authorities in Russia have already degenerated to the level of "black colonels," and that the "creeping" military coup begun by some generals last fall is nearing its successful end.

Boris Pustintsev is the chairman of Citizens' Watch, a St. Petersburg civil-rights watchdog organization. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.